The Secrets, Spies and Trials episode of 4 Corners this week had a wonderfully ironic quote from Alexander Downer. He said this in 2004 as Australian Foreign Minister negotiating oil and gas rights with Timor-Leste:
I think they’ve made a very big mistake thinking that the best way to handle this negotiation is trying to shame Australia, is mounting abuse on our country, accusing us of bullying and being rich and so on when you consider all we’ve done for East Timor.
Turns out we actually made the mistake, and Timor-Leste was right to shame us: apparently Australia had secretly bugged government offices in East Timor and used that information to skew outcome of the negotiations. "All we've done for East Timor" allegedly includes Australian aid programmes that were used as cover to install secret listening equipment. I am ashamed of my country for doing that.
Today I worry that we didn't learn the right lesson. We should have learned not to cheat in business negotiations by spying on our allies and friends, but with Witness K and Bernard Collaery being charged it feels like our government instead is trying to scare good people into shutting up about Australia behaving badly.
Aside from the dubious ethics of that, I don't think it could ever work.
Bad behaviour like this is going to be found out. Perhaps once spies could keep bad decisions and inethical practices secret but I suspect it is getting much harder to cover that up. More and more secret information is finding its way to the media, and threats of prosecution hasn't stopped it. The vigorous prosecution of Chelsea Manning for revealing a giant trove of classified information didn't prevent Edward Snowden from doing the same immediately afterwards. We live in a world where we are told China stole the blueprints for Australian spy headquarters and the hackers China uses for such thefts are documented on Wikipedia, and so we should assume no-one's secrets are safe.
Someone in our security agencies might have thought squeezing extra money out of poor East Timor was in Australia's best interest. Perhaps on a purely financial basis it would be — if kept secret. But we were found out! It was not in Australia's interest to be shown to be cheating in treaty negotiations and taking advantage of a struggling neighbour. Spying on Timor-Leste surely did us more harm than good.
I bet our security agencies do all sorts of great work for our country that we never get to hear about. When some of that inevitably leaks out we should be proud of whatever our spies have done. If we would be embarrassed when something done in private becomes public... well then we shouldn't be doing it. I hope that is the lesson learnt from all this.